I recently presented to the UBC Communication Cardinals about Search Engine Optimization. I knew before the presentation that I was overly ambitious to try tackling all the topics I wanted to discuss in just 90 minutes. I probably would have needed the whole morning to really get into the topic, including demonstrating tools such as Google Webmastertools. Consequently, I did not get to the important topic of International SEO. Here is the promised follow-up…

SEO is already a complex topic that needs to be optimized across a variety of areas such as content creation (e.g. placement of keywords), CMS configuration (e.g. URL alias rewrite rules, metatags, redirects), server optimization (e.g. speed through various caches), page design, usability aspects and so on. But it is going to get a lot more complicated. UBC has ambitious internationalization goals which means that it will be important to make sure that our content performs well internationally to achieve the best possible organic search results. We want international media to pick up on our news releases, the academic community to find out about our research findings and prospective students to realize that we might have to offer programs for them.

What are the additional difficulties?

The typical assumption is that well optimized content will perform equally on a global scale. When I speak to colleagues about SEO, often the first comment is that their site is ranked on the first results page for their desired keyword, ie. no action is required. However, they have tested it only on their own computer at their own location and in their own language. In reality though, search results might be personalized and localized.

Problem 1: Personalization

Google is one of the biggest search engines in most markets. With rollout of Google Plus and the merging of user profiles across their various services and combined with a persistant login (ie. you stay logged in on your computer despite closing the browser) it will get easier and easier for Google to personalize the search results. Signals to incorporate into search results are

  • Pages that you previously marked with PlusOne
  • Pages that your circles marked with PlusOne (similarly to Amazon’s other people liked this or that book, Google can focus on what your friends like and prioritize these results individually for you)
  • Your interaction with pages: which search result did you click on and did you actually bounce back to the SERPs or stay on the site
  • Any information you might have provided voluntarily to improve your search experience

It will basically mean that Google will learn more about you and your preferences and adjust accordingly to present your individual results that no one else might ever get to see. However, personalization will apply equally on a national level.

Problem 2: Localization

Google’s index does not consist of only one index. In fact, there are multiple indexes and local indexes as well. The German index is different from the Australian index which again is different from the US index. For a lot of searches it makes sense to consider your location, e.g. if you want to order a pizza it is most logical to not only search within your country, but to search for results in a close proximity. However, if you search for new Diabetes treatments, should you not find results from anywhere? To take language out of the equation, a Canadian performing the search might expect to find results from Canada, Australia, New Zealand, US or UK to name a few English-speaking countries.

Let’s do a simple test to see localization in effect. By simply changing the Google country search site, we can observe the differences in the results. The table shows the top 5 results for search terms “Diabetes treatment”:

google.com google.ca google.co.uk google.com.au
www.medicinenet.com www.medicinenet.com www.medicinenet.com www.medicinenet.com
diabetesdirectory.org www.emedicinehealth.com www.diabetes.co.uk www.thediabetesguide.com
www.diabetes.co.uk en.wikipedia.org www.nhs.uk www.emedicinehealth.com
en.wikipedia.org www.canada.com diabetesdirectory.org www.diabetesaustralia.com.au
www.diabetes.org bodyandhealth.canada.com www.naturalhomeremedieshq.com www.diabetesaustralia.com.au

As you can see, Google always includes domains of the TLDs (.com,.net,.org,.edu,.gov) and depending on your search index adds domains that match the search interface ccTLD (.au if searching on google.com.au, .ca if searching on google.ca). It actually seems rare that a page from a different local index gets displayed. An alternative explanation is that the variation in the results is caused by index update differences. Updates happen chronologically and algorithm changes get rolled out in phases, typically starting with the US and then being pushed out by country. Both of these things could lead to the variations that you can observe in this simple experiment, although I consider that unlikely.

Influencers on location:

  • Your IP address
  • Selection of Google frontend, e.g. google.com vs. google.ca vs. google.de
  • Language of search keywords
  • Computer language settings
  • Indication of location in the search terms
  • Location of the hosting server

Most people do not even realize that Google makes these decisions for them. If you look at the Google (in this case google.ca) interface, you will notice location settings:

Google.ca interface

As you can see in the screenshot, Google detects my location as Vancouver and allows me to select if I want to search pages from the web or pages from Canada. The preset is “The web”. Looking at the results does not suggest though that I am actually seeing results from around the world. As explained in the previous example, I seem to be viewing results within TLD domains and .ca domains. I believe that changing the setting to “Pages from Canada” will still show TLDs and .ca domains, but might specifically display websites that are hosted physically within Canada.

If I try to change my location from Vancouver to somewhere outside of Canada, Google will prohibit this:

Google.ca: Trying to set location outside of Canada

As a user, my only options to influence this behaviour are to select a different interface by changing the ccTLD (e.g. from google.ca to google.com.au) or by including the location into the search terms.

Google.ca with location specified in search terms

Despite being on google.ca, my results change considerably by including “Australia” as a term into my query. What does this mean for SEO? If we want to be successful internationally, we have to understand what decisions Google makes on behalf of the user and how that influences the probability of our results to appear in search results around the world.

Problem 3: Language

Apart from a personalization and localization challenge, we face another major issue with foreign languages. I speak German and English so as a user I can decide to conduct a search on google.de with German keywords or google.com with English keywords. However, how do we reach users who do not even consider another language or cannot do this for the lack of language skills? Consider the example of student recruitment. At the end of the day, a student interested in studying abroad will most likely go to the local search interface and type the equivalent of “study abroad” or “research degree chemistry” or something similar in the local language into the search. I doubt that any UBC page will ever come up for a search in a foreign language and in a foreign country. For generic searches like this we probably should not come up either because their are better resources available to meet the needs of the person searching. However, we might not even come up high as a result if the user includes “canada” or even “british columbia” or “vancouver” in the search terms. Being one of a few higher education institutions in Vancouver, this is a search term for which we potentially should come up.

Potential solutions

1) Wikipedia (quick interim opportunity)

Wikipedia is a truly global site with lots of traffic and in multiple languages. Moreover, we have access to contribute to it. If we cannot rank on a given search term with our own page, it always helps to place the correct information on the pages that do rank high. Hence, Wikipedia might be a logical choice. Please note that I am not suggesting to:

  • take over our UBC Wikipedia entries to make them advertising pages.
  • bombard individual pages with a gazillion of minor updates. This will most likely require some stewardship, guidance and coordination.

In essence, I am suggesting to contribute value to Wikipedia by providing our insider knowledge to make the entries better, but to keep it objective as required by Wikipedia. We have to make sure to respect and comply with the rules regarding writing about your own organization. Often, Wikipedia pages include incomplete or outdated information, e.g. statistics about the number of students at UBC, which we could correct by respecting the Wikipedia guidelines and policies! In my opinion, the first step is to check the existing UBC page in English and to suggest enhancements where appropriate. An acceptable solution could be to suggest changes to editors on the discussion page. Contributing great images could be beneficial as well. The second step could then involve to make use of our diversity within the Communication Cardinals and their language skills to help populate the often minimal entries in other languages. UBC already has entries in 25 languages on Wikipedia, but many are very poor when compared to the English version. If you take a look at just a few different language pages, you will notice that our foundation year, current leadership, student numbers, university logo etc. are all different. If you want to laugh, check out the French entry and then think about the official languages in Canada.

2) News releases in foreign languages (targeted at our desired growth countries)

To my knowledge our news releases are pitched to media contacts in English only. In my previous job we were very successful in providing universities with translation services for high profile news releases. Maybe UBC could benefit from selecting specific topics of high interest to certain countries, evaluate outgoing news releases and create a foreign language version that gets pushed to news media in the target country. If additional coverage through these translated releases can be achieved that outweighs the costs of providing this service, it would be great. We would likely have benefits for SEO as well because it is a form of link building.

3) Evaluation of use of ubc.edu

Based on the importance of TLDs, UBC could assess options to make use of the existing ubc.edu domain. I doubt that it would ever be feasible to change from ubc.ca to ubc.edu (e.g. based on the thousands and thousands of incoming links that would need to be handled etc.), but maybe there are ways to place strategic content on that page (see solution 4).

4) Evaluation of development of an international microsite in multiple languages

With a clearly developed UBC profile that covers some key topics, UBC could deploy a microsite for international SEO purposes in a variety of languages, potentially under ubc.edu with sections for each language. There are advantages and disadvantages to solutions like sub-domains (fr.ubc.edu, de.ubc.edu) or subfolders (ubc.edu/fr/, ubc.edu/de) and countries vs. languages (what language do you display for Canada?). There are a lot of issues to consider though and this would require a very careful analysis.

Issues to keep in mind are that:

  • Keyword research and selection should happen in the foreign language
  • Translations are very difficult and should not be done not literally
  • Optimization should happen after translation
  • Strongest local search engines (if not Google) should be identified and the strategy adjusted to match local leader’s requirements

5) Deployment of content through CDNs in various parts of the world

Based on the fact that hosting location has implications for search ranking (and page load/speed!), a Content-Delivery Network could be evaluated for UBC.


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